Tag Archives: world-building

Magic’s Pawn

One of my favorite styles of magic, though not often see is not a clever way for the protagonist to control the forces of magic, but a system where the forces of magic control the protagonist.  I suppose an ancient prophecy ca work kind of like this or a higher being giving direction, but I’m talking a more concrete and local form of control, yet exercised by a more abstract force.

The forces of magic involved don’t necessarily have to be sentient or intelligent in the way a human is or, even an animal although they could be.  Honestly, I think not being so makes the situation all the more interesting.

Think of the way a bee is involved in an ecosystem: generally as a pollinator.  Now imagine that a human (probably a mage or this world’s equivalent, but not necessarily) has been incorporated into the magical ecosystem of the world in the same way.  Some force of magic has evolved to encourage certain behaviors in human mages that are beneficial to the magic of the world that force of magic is part of.

Perhaps there is a cycle sort of like the water cycle that benefits from humanity in chaos, and so the magic has evolved ways to create that chaos through empowering some mage or person.  The specific actions of the person are irrelevant to the magic, as long as they cause a great upheaval.  The system may not even care if humans would describe this pawn of magic as “evil” or “good”.

Humanoid characters are almost always portrayed as exerting control over the magic of their world, but they are rarely shown to have been integrated into the system–as we are integrated into nature, even despite our control of it–despite what is portrayed in the world’s history as thousands or even millions of years of coexistence.

Where are the magical world equivalents of modern climate change?  There are apocalypses sort of like nuclear bomb analogs.  Mercedes Lackey’s Winds series, for example, with it’s effects on the world of the end of the war depicted in her Gryphon’s series.  But rarely if ever are there subtle build-ups of all the interference caused by humans harnessing magical forces.  Not even on the local level like the magical equivalent of the flooding and ecological damage caused by damning rivers, or the water shortages caused by different political entities failing to cooperate on usage rights of the local river.

I would love to read (or write!) some fantasy exploring a closer relationship between man and magic than simply human master and magical servant/slave.


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June 2015 World-building Seminar: Technology and World-building

This is the third post in my mini-Seminar on Technology in World-building.  This mini-series follow a slightly different format than the standard-form Monthly Word-building Seminars.  So for this post, I’ll be covering how to match your World-building to your technology in terms of general concepts.

There are five things to consider when deciding what level of technology will reasonably support your narrative with the fewest plot-holes:

  1. You need to have a general idea of what is powering your technology.  Is it man-power?  Horse-power?  Do you have steam engines or electricity?  What natural resource is generating this energy?  You might have food for humans or animals, coal or gas for steam engines or internal combustion engines.  You could have nuclear power running a steam turbine to generate electricity.  Perhaps you have wind, geothermal, solar, tidal, or river power to run an electric generator.
  2. You need to know what support technologies and knowledge are required for your energy-production method.  Do you need metal-working?  What about physics?  Battery power requires knowledge of chemistry.  Electric power requires lots of advanced knowledge to be widely-spread.
  3. What other technologies are likely to have been discovered on the path to your most modern science, and are they obsolete, moribund, or still of practical value?  Most societies with war as a major component learned how to make edged weapons and armor.  Sword-forging techniques are incredibly innovative and complex.  When reliable fire-arms came along, however, they were soon obsolete.  Windmills and watermills were original created to grind grain or pump water.  But even though we have more advanced methods for that today, we were able to incorporate that knowledge into new technology, to generate electric power.  With the advent of computers and electronic mail stationary production is no longer strictly necessary.  Many people no longer rely on letters as a form of communication on a regular basis.  And yet some of the technology and systems involved still survive in diminished capacities.
  4. What technology does evidence suggest are developed alongside the technology you wish to use in your story?  Can or would a society evolve to ignore those technologies if they don’t work for your narrative structure?  Modern communication has invalidated many of our most popular narrative structures.  Yet many authors are so used to writing in those structures, they find increasingly creative and improbably ways to invalidate the new technology and thus create space for their narratives rather than figuring out how to create tension by designing new structures to incorporate modern realities..  Or they don’t have the technology exist at all.
  5. Relatedly, can you somehow justify your narrative or society despite the fact that the necessary combination of technologies is plausible based on your world-building or story events?  How many plot-holes can your story support if you can’t quite make things fit how you’d need them to?

In its simplest usage, technology is the list of possibilities available to you as an author to move your narrative along.  But it’s also a set of restrictions on what you can realistically accomplish within your narrative.

If you have cell-phones, then it’s a lot harder to plot a story where key pieces of information are kept from various characters due to narrative shenanigans.  Really any sort of spycraft story is gonna be very different with long-distance communication.  You can text pictures of important documents, for example, instead of having to break back out of the evil fortress.  Sneaking around is a lot harder with cameras and heat-sensors. It’s relatively easy to assume a false identity in the middle ages.  How are they going to fact-check you when you’re from a thousand miles away with shitty roads and a bandit problem?  In the modern world, it’s a lot harder to get along as a fake person, despite what you may see in the movies.  Communications technology has a huge impact on a society and its national identity, and we’ll be covering those effects in-depth in a later seminar.

Cheap, high-quality steel can lead to very advanced swords–way better than were available back in the day.  But!  They’ve probably been outmoded by guns by the time such steel is available.  But the implications as far as national security and expansion potential given a certain level of military tech relative to neighboring lands should be pretty obvious.

And all this is ignoring the possibility of magic mimicking advanced technology in a fantasy story.


It’s also important to keep in mind that available technology is going to have a strong influence on how your society is structured.  Your population density for cities increases sharply with easy transportation or aqueducts to supply water.  Concrete makes for cheap, durable housing for the masses.  Good building insulation increases the number of climates humans can have an advanced civilization in.  Road-building and ship-building technology mean increased trade, which leads to more wealth.  They also make it easier to hold together a large political region, because it’s easier for the ruler to communicate and enforce his will.

Medicine is also important.  Good medical technology lets people live longer, take greater risks, and increases population.  People aren’t dying all the time from plagues, and they’re living longer.  This can lead to more skilled workers, give a genius more time to pursue knowledge, and increase the amount of wealth held by individuals or families.


It’s impossible in a single post or even a series of posts to cover even every major question about how technology will influence the world and any narratives that occur in it.  Different environments or political situations are going to affect how important a given aspect of technology is.  Some paths of development on Earth are just accidents of history and can be deviated from.  But it’s still an important thing to consider.  In the fourth and final post in this series (for now), I’m going to examine Jurassic World and the ways in which technology both make the story possible, but also leave some pretty gaping plot holes.


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Monthly World-building Seminar: Introduction

As I’ve worked on this blog and on my writing, I’ve come to the conclusion that my special skill is world-building. It’s not only one of the hallmarks of what I see as my style of writing, but an interest I can and have explored even outside of writing.  There are many writing and literature blogs on the internet, and I’ve long struggled to find my niche.  At this moment, I think my best option is to specialize in world-building, a topic covered in breadth by many others, but rarely covered in the depths I intend to plumb.

I’ll choose a topic every month, with wide enough application to support a lengthy series of posts approximating the following format:

  1. The first post with be a broad introduction to the topic with an idea of what inspired me to pick it.
  2. The second post will be a general exploration of how it applies to the real world.
  3. The third post will be a general exploration of how it might be applied to fictional stories.
  4. The fourth post will be an explanation of how it applies to the triad of fiction: character, plot, and setting.
  5. The fifth post will be a successful real-world example of the concept, covered in-depth.
  6. The sixth post will be a second real-world example, of a failed application.
  7. The seventh will be an example of the application of the concept in fiction, preferably of a short-form work.
  8. The eighth will be an example of the concept in a long-form work.
  9. The ninth post will be an example of a failed application in fiction.
  10. The tenth and final post will be a conclusion of the seminar, possibly some writing prompts, and some questions to keep in mind when writing future stories. And the next topic!

I’ll have at least a partial list of individual topics in the intro post, some reading assignments(though they won’t be necessary to understand and enjoy the seminars, I’d say they add a lot of nuance), and some exploration of my inspiration.

The intro will always be on the first day of the month, and the conclusion on the last day.  The posts in between will on average be two posts a week on Tuesdays and Fridays.

Feel free to comment, suggest  topics, and in general let me know if I’ve done anything wrong, or right.

The first official topic, starting in June, will be History and Narratives: Putting the “Story” Back in “History”.

The first unofficial topic published on a shortened schedule in May, Technology and Inequality: Understanding Your Setting


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Real World Booty: Plundering Reality to Meet Your Fantastical Needs

Hopefully that title won’t bring me too many people searching for porn.  One of the greatest sins of the writer is disappointing your reader, intended audience or not.

What I want to talk about in this post is both the issue of cliches in fantasy, and how to more effectively draw inspiration from the real world for your science fiction or fantasy.  I’ll be looking mostly at fantasy here, though.


So, fantasy is often accused of being a mass of cliches, or an idealized Medieval Europe.  Also of lacking diversity, and rehashing the same few tired plots.  And it’s true.The quest narrative, the rightful king narrative, and the invasion/war narrative are three of the most popular plots in fantasy, no matter what the setting.  Urban fantasy tends to focus on murder mystery or heist plots, with the occasional corrupt authority/dictator and secret cabal thrown in.  Etc.

And that’s understandable.  They’re the most popular plots already, they’re easy to conceptualize, and they have a mass of associated tropes to draw on.  Honestly, as broad as that list is, it’s hard to imagine there even are other plots to take.  And where would one find the inspiration for them, when fantasy itself is so inbred and cliche?


The answer to that question, as the title of this post hopefully suggests, is the real world.  What are or were hot-button issues in the real world during various historical periods?  Especially ones outside of the traditional mediveal European settings?  And how can we makes use of them while avoiding things like cultural appropriation?


I’ll give a few examples, and hopefully conclude with some useful methods of finding more.


1. Industrialization is one such plot.  It’s almost the entire basis of steampunk, much like the digital revolution is the basis cyberpunk.  The difference between the two genres might provide some useful thoughts.  Cyberpunk relates to the information revolution.  Control of data and information drives many of the plots.  Hacking, after all, a mainstay of cyberpunk, is about liberating information and fighting manipulation of it and the invasive gathering of it.  Steampunk is about the effects of urbanization and industrialization on public morals, the class divide, etc.

2. One way to find inspiration is to take an era in the real world and tease out what the major concerns of the people were.  You can fine-tune it even more, and look at different groups in the same era.  During the 20s, you had prohibition occupying the minds of the government, the criminal element, and the various classes, especially the working class.  You had suffrage occupying much of the middle class.  Both of these are public morals issues as well as economic and political issues.

3. The colonial period deals with religious and economic issues.  The colonists wanted to practice their version of correct Christianity.  The British Empire wanted to increase its economic power and prestige as compared to the other European countries.  Countries like India, China, and Japan worried about growing European power and influence.  The proliferation of opium in China courtesy of British traders was a public morals issue for China, and an economic one for Britain.  The forced opening of Japan near the end of the period dealt with global influence and cultural contamination.  Cultural contamination is often a strong possible plot point.  So is the ability to trade.  Britain and America desired coaling stations to power their ships, which Japan could provide, though it didn’t want to, and trade targets for their goods–again, something Japan had but didn’t want to engage in.  British opium grown in India had a ready market in China, and the British needed the money to fund their colonial pursuits, but the Chinese government hated it, and indeed several wars and rebellions occurred in China over the issue of such foreign influence.

4. The decay of the samurai class in Japan is another example of a plot point not based on wars or quests or murder mysteries.  The ease of training conscripts with guns and the fact that samurai martial arts could not compete on the battle field with many modern war technologies created a great deal of social unrest in the upper classes, of which samurai constituted a large portion.  Centuries of power and tradition came under threat with the influx of Western goods and technologies.

5. Resource management is another common source of tension.  Water rights, various magical analogies to resources and resource management, the rise of land prices in response to some new perceived value.  All of these could drive fantasy plots just as easily as evil overlords or imminent invasions.

6.  Taking from the modern day, important inventions, magical or otherwise make good plots points.  Look at the many effects of social networking technologies like Facebook have had on our own society.  The cotton gin, railroads, steamboats.

7.  Things like intra-governmental conflict are also good sources of conflict.  Analogies to states rights, or who controls interstate commernce and what such a term covers, especially in the face of new ideas or technologies could drive a fantasy novel.  So could large movements of people, such as illegal immigrants to the US.  Famine or disease or political revolution and exposure to other cultures and ideas could drive stories.  US influence pre-war on Afghanistan.  Religious movements such as the Taliban or the Great Awakening.

8. Finally, something I’ve always been interested in, more low-stakes conflict, as seen in general fiction or YA contemp.  Conflict between less powerful members of society can illuminate conflicting forces as good or better than conflict between powerful sorcerers or kings.


And there are many more things than what I’ve listed.  Almost infinite sources of inspiration.  Even odd small facts you ran across in a Facebook post or magazine article.


In summary, here are three major sources of inspiration I feel have been previously untapped or not fully utilized:

1. The common concerns of various eras in various countries, such as Prohibition or urbanization in the US.

2. Conflict in microcosms of society as opposed to the macrocosm: War shortages in one neighborhood in a medium city as opposed to soldiers on the front lines.

3. Changes in a culture or society brought about not by war or good vs. evil, such as the decay of the Samurai class during the Meiji era of Japan or Southern planters near the end of slavery.

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Posted by on July 10, 2014 in Fantasy, Ideas, Speculative Reality, World-building


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Immersive vs. Intrusive Settings

I thought I’d piggy-back off of Farah Mendlesohn‘s distinction between Intrusive and Immersive Fantasy in her book Rhetorics of Fantasy.  Essentially, Mendlesohn proposes and axis between “immersive” fantasy on one end, and “intrusive” fantasy on the other.


Immersive Fantasy– a fantasy setting which is presented as the norm for the protagonist, while also not being the norm for the reader.  Generally there is little info-dumping or explanatory narrative.  Most proto-typical immersive fantasy is secondary world fantasy which remains “impervious” to its existence as a foil for our world.

Note:  Not all immersive fantasy is secondary world, and not all secondary world fantasy is immersive.


Intrusion Fantasy– a fantasy setting in which the fantastic intrudes into the real world or a close approximation thereof.  The protagonist generally shares the readers confusion, ignorance, and/or skepticism of the fantastic elements, unlike in immersive settings where the protagonist considers fantastic elements as normal parts of their everyday world.


Now, my proposition is this post is to expand these words to describe and sort of fictional setting.  Certainly, science fiction can be immersive or intrusive.  Going even further, a great deal of mystery and horror fiction is intrusive, in the sense that there are metaphorical worlds beyond the everyday world of the protagonist.  Keep in mind that immersive vs. intrusive is one continuum, following one axis of possible descriptors for a setting.  Secondary world vs. primary world is another such axis.  So is high fantasy vs. low fantasy.  Hard SF vs. Soft SF.  These are not genres.  They are not prescriptive labels.  They are purely descriptive.


As a basic example of  non-speculative fiction with an immersive intrusive distinction, consider:  getting caught up in a whistle-blowing chase thriller surrounding a company’s environmental crimes is no less intrusive to “everyday” life for you or me than is getting caught up in a war between vampires and werewolves.  What makes a setting intrusive vs. immersive is the relationship between the character’s perspective before and after the inciting incident.  For example, the White Walkers in Game of Thrones are an intrusive element relative to the understanding of the Starks and their people.

There are, in reality, two immersive/intrusive axes in any story.  One is based on the perspective of the character, and one on the reader.  Proto-typical intrusive fantasy has a protagonist and a reader sharing a basic understanding of the world.  Then an element foreign to both perspectives enters the story.  Proto-typical immersive fantasy has a protagonist and a reader with different understandings of their worlds.  But there’s no rule that the reader and character axes can’t intersect.


I believe that this method of looking at setting (and plot) can create a much closer interaction between writers of various genres, as many of the same methodologies and story-telling tools are held in common across genres.

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Posted by on April 14, 2014 in World-building, Writing


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World-building Depth vs. Relatability: Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

A friend of mine and I recently read Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed.  It was a fun book.  But as someone who is extremely interested in world-building, I found a few things disappointing.  The style of world-building in Throne is allusion-analogue world-building:  There’s a secondary world, but it has strong similiarities to cultures and history from Earth.  This style relies on the reader’s familiarity with the real history and culture involved to build a world with less of the info-dumping common to many secondary-world spec fic.  It also allows the author to make more straight-forward references to the real world for comedic or moral or philosophical effect.

Although I don’t personally do a lot of academic reading on genres in general, and spec fic in particular, there is some useful material pointed out to me by my friend:

Farah Mendlesohn wrote a book called Rhetorics of Fantasy, which described an axis of categorization between including “immersive”, portal, “intrusive”, and “liminal” fantasy.  Essentially, immersive fantasy involves a secondary world that is “impervious to knowledge of an outside reality”.  That outside reality being Earth.  Basically, it avoids direct reference to Earth in the narrative.  The Malazan series is a strong example of immersive fantasy.

Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon inhabits a twilight zone somewhere between immersive fantasy and portal fantasy.  It is a secondary world in which the Earth does not exist, and yet it makes a great deal of references and allusions to Earth history and culture.  You can clearly see the analogues to Arabic and Turkish culture, as well as to Islam.  The Islam connection is particularly direct.

This style of fantasy has its advantages.  It’s easier for a reader to get into.  They have places of references, and a great deal of knowledge and sentiment that allows them to understand the setting and sometimes even the characters.

However, it has some disadvantages, as well, and these were pretty relevant to my response to the book.  There’s a tradeoff to be made between difficulty of reading and depth of world-building, and finding the perfect balance can be tough.  (I want to be very clear that this post is not about cultural appropriation.  It is about methods and techniques of world-bulding, and how each style has its pitfalls.)  Throne lands solidly in the very relatable, less deep quadrant.


A major problem I had with the world-building and characterization of the novel was that I felt the middle-eastern setting was somewhat superficial.  And I mean that in the literal sense of being only on the surface.

For example, Adoulla made references to scripture in his magic, and Raseed is classified as a “dervish”.  But beyond the basic middle-eastern flavor many Western readers associate with those words, they didn’t have a great deal of effect on the characters.  Raseed is a sword-weilding prodigy, is a bit naive and strait-laced, and has a single, short-lived, relatively lacking-in-tension confrontation with some “allies”.  But you never really learn what effect on his character his childhood in the Order has.  In fact, there doesn’t seem to be one, at least based on the events in this first novel–perhaps it changes later.

The politics and culture of the city suffer a similar shallowness.  The “Khalif” behaves and is portrayed as a fairly standard Grand Duke/Prince/King character.  Despite the existence of an Islam-like religion in the world of the story, you never see any real evidence beyond Adoulla and Raseed playing out their grizzled mentor/innocent apprentice relationship.  There are some few details, such as Adoulla’s love of cardamom tea, and a general lac of alcoholic beverages.  However, these are few and far between.

It’s a fair argument to make that Western European fantasy follows similar patterns, and suffers from similar failures.  Much high and heroic fantasy uses similar world-building techniques, and relies on references to Earth cultures to create its setting.  There’s no reason non-Western settings should be required by default to have superior world-building.

And certainly the methods involved make things easier for the reader and writer.  It can be hard to orient oneself in a truly secondary world(immersive) fantasy.  Creating a fully realized original world is a challenge for both writers and readers.  And many readers are more interested in an epic quest or back-alley battle than in exploring secondary worlds.  That’s a perfectly valid approach to reading fantasy.  And writing it.

Throne is a heroic fantasy/sword & sorcery homage, and there’s a lot of enjoyment to be found in that.  It is most often epic fantasies in which the truly immersive fantasy is found (although that’s descriptive, not prescriptive).  It is not a terrible book, and the market loves such works.  There is a great deal to enjoy in the story, including the dilemmas of the characters.  It is completely possible to see the flaws in a work and still enjoy it.  And that is a good description of how I felt about this book.

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Posted by on February 12, 2014 in Uncategorized


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Linguistics and SFF: Signs and Signals and Story-telling

In my past few posts, I have been using the words “signal”, “sign”, and “signifier”, and rather haphazardly at that.  But these are real linguistic concepts, and that have concrete meanings.  And, perhaps more relevant to this post, these concepts can be useful tools in constructing not only your speculative world, but the character arcs and themes underlying your narrative.

So, first some definitions:

Language is made up of a set of signs and the rules that govern their interactions.  You can, for most purposes, consider a sign to be a word in context.

Every sign has three(1) parts:

The signifier is the group of sounds (or letters, for written words) that make up the word.

The signified is what we think of when we hear or see the word.

The referent is what the word refers to in the context in which we encounter it.

For example:  we have a sign with the signifier “president”.  It’s signified is the head of the executive branch of the US government. (Strictly speaking, that’s just its denotation.  You can include the connotation, as well.)  And the referent currently would be Barack Obama.  In 1992, the signifier and signified would have been the same, but the word would have a different referent when used in the US in the absence of any modifiers.

Now, when working in speculative fiction, you can use these aspects of a word (or sign) to decide what English word to use, or if you might like to use a foreign word.

For example, what do you want to call your political units?  We have many choices for this, many possible signs.  We have empires.  An empire is a political unit consisting of many smaller states brought together by forces–most commonly conquest.  An empire can have connotations of bureaucracy, soaring capitals and primitive backwaters.  There are many real-world referents, such as sophisticated Rome, far-flung Alexandria, brutal Azteca, and powerful Britain.

And you can capitalize on aspects of those various referents, much as you could capitalize on the various connotations.  Or, you could pick a kingdom, and capitalize on the myriad kingdoms throughout history.  The same is true for anything, from religion, to clothing, to character.

In the next post, I’ll look at how you can make use of the written form of a sign in your world-building, and I’ll give some examples of foreign signs and how these concepts can influence their use.

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Posted by on July 18, 2013 in Cultural Appropriation, Linguistics


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